The Harrowing Tree

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter Nine

NINE

I don’t need to be here,” Andi complained for the twenty-seventh time that afternoon, squashing the bag of ice down against her bruised scalp.

They were squished into a small room at Pleasant Mill Hospital, about an hour outside of Bellriver. Andi’d been there for over an hour and still no one had come to see them, and the medicinal stink of iodoform in the air was churning her stomach.

Anderson Darcy hated few places more than hospitals.

Mercer regarded her a moment.

“I don’t,” she repeated. “I’m fine—”

“You were just rundown by a car. So, you’re not going anywhere, Darcy.”

Andi, scowling, crossed her arms and slumped back in the hospital bed—and ground her teeth, fighting back her instinct to wince at the agony in her spine. And her head. And everywhere else in her body.

In the back of her mind, she heard a song. If only she could remember what it was.

“You don’t need to sit here with me. I’m fine. Really.”

Mercer flashed her a dark look. “I’m not worried.”

“Good. Because there’s nothing to worry about. I’m perfectly fine—”

“The only thing I’m worried about is being down an officer in the middle of a murder investigation,” he snidely snapped.

Andi was momentarily taken aback, and even Mercer seemed somewhat surprised by the coldness of his voice.

Loosening a deep breath, he added, “I need you to heal up, Darcy. We need you on this investigation. The chief needs you.”

She looked up then as Mercer lapsed into silence. “You need me?”

He offered a curt nod. “We. We need you,” he said. “So, you’re going to stay here and rest. And, for God’s sake, Darcy, I better not see you until at least the morning.”

“But—”

“No buts. Just rest. Can you follow that simple instruction?”

He rose and, slipping his coat on, headed for the door. “If you even think about getting out of that bed,” he said, jabbing a finger her way, “you’ll catch yourself on dispatch for the rest of the year. Got it?”

Andi, eyes rolling to the back of her head, exhaled loud enough to drive him from the room.

She sat there, staring at the ceiling. Fuming.

And when she closed her eyes, she felt it happen again. And again.

This wasn’t an accident.

It wasn’t often that Jeannie found herself at a bar. Drinking. She’d left that scene behind shortly after college and never really looked back. Occasionally, Mark would bring her to The Dancing Dog a few towns over in Pleasant Mill, but Jeannie, on the rare occasion when she did drink, preferred the local hot spot.

Cow Bell’s was the smallest bar Jeannie had ever known, and buried so deep in the hills of Bellriver, it was naturally only inhabited by town natives. Occasionally, a few Hilltowners (as they were known by members of the Mountain Town) crept in, usually accompanied by a familiar Bellriver face, but it was rare.

Bella McCallister, bartender and owner, waved them in.

It was quaint, Jeannie always thought. Bistro by day, bar by night. Mark used to take her here for breakfast all the time when they first started dating, but the Depot was right down the street and so much better.

It was late evening, which means Cow Bell’s had already undergone the switch from breakfast and coffee, burgers and fries, to “beer and whiskey and everything risky”—as was advertised.

The place, as was evident by the title, was cow themed. Tables littered the small pub, each was a plastic cow-spot printed table cloth. Different sized cowbells hung along the wall, and one above the doorway—though, oddly enough, rather than hear the chime of a bell every time the door opened, a recording of a cow’s moo played instead.

Jeannie’s favorite, though, was the stuffed cow bottom that hung from the wall, hind legs and tail trailing down, almost as though a real cow were lodged in the wall—and somewhere, outside, someone was looking at the other end. The better end.

“Haven’t seen you folks in a while,” Bell observed.

Without looking at the women, Pennilyn said, “We haven’t needed a reason to drink.”

She led them to the rear of the bar, where it was darkest and where, on certain nights, Bell flicked on the neon lights, turning the back area into a makeshift dance floor.

Hattie and Donnie escorted Jeannie to the back, following closely on Pennilyn’s tail, where they sat against the far wall. In his pocket, Donnie’s phone rang again and again on silent. Arlo calling to tell him about the accident, though he didn’t know it—and wouldn’t, not for the rest of that night.

Tanner, alone, did not follow.

He didn’t like places like this. He always needed time to settle in. Get accustomed to the environment.

Old Resa had decided to go home with Mark, who needed to watch his daughter.

Jeannie felt weird being there without him now.

“What now?” Hattie asked, staring down at her own hands.

Pennilyn scowled. “This is the easy part. You know how to read.” She nudged her bony, saggy chin towards a rack of bottles on the other end of the counter. “Pick your poison, book-lover.”

Hattie looked to Donnie and rolled her eyes.

Bell saddled up to them, dancing along to country music that Jeannie only now began to register, sounding from the background.

“What can I get you, doll?”

Jeannie sighed. “Something strong.”

A hand landed on her shoulder and she turned to see Mark smiling at her back.

“She’ll take some Skrewball,” he said, nodding to the whiskey bottle at Bell’s back. “We both will.”

She nodded. “Good choice.”

Jeannie grinned. “What are you doing here? Where’s Kathy?”

“Old Resa’s with her,” he said. “She thought it better that I was here with you. And,” he said, “I can’t help but agree.” His face changed. “There were officers waiting outside the house. From Hilltown.”

“Officers?” Jeannie could only stare.

“I let them in. To search Kerry’s room. And I had Old Resa take Kathy back to her place. There’s no need for her to start asking questions we don’t want to answer.”

Jeannie nodded and tried to pull him down into the seat beside her, but Mark resisted.

“No, no. We’re not sitting all night.”

Bell slid them their glasses and danced away.

The song—something about dirt roads, boots, the usual—blared louder.

Mark took up his glass, as dd Jeannie, and they clanked their rims before, hooking their arms, they downed the stuff in one swig.

Jeannie set down her glass and grinned.

Mark did the same, but when she looked at him, Jeannie saw that he was holding out his hand.

“Can I have this dance?”

Jeannie, stunned, shook her head. “I don’t want to dance, Mark.”

But this was a lie. Really, honestly, there was nothing in the world that Jeannie wanted more than to dance. Only, it felt wrong. Her being happy like this, having fun, while Kerry . . .

Gently, she shook her head and turned on her stool, facing the bar. “I can’t.”

“You can,” insisted Mark, and he placed his hands on her forearms. Not hard, insistent, but just lightly enough to show her that he was there. That it was okay now. “You don’t have to dance if you really don’t want to, Jeannie. But Kerry . . .” He stopped himself, his hands deftly stroking her arms.

She turned her head and rested it against his chest, hard at her back.

“If Kerry were here, would she want you sitting alone at the bar?”

Jeannie stared into the near distance, never seeing the back wall, but never taking her eyes off it.

“Or would she want you to dance?”

Jeannie suddenly saw Kerry as she was a few years earlier. They’d run into her at this very same bar, and . . .

“Only losers remain at the bar when they’ve turned the overhead lights on,” Kerry had said, indicating the colored lights, streaming down. She put her arms around Jeannie and tugged her from the stool. “Don’t be a loser, honey.”

Jeannie hadn’t.

“She’d want me to dance,” she said at last, shutting her eyes against the memory, and leaning into Mark.

“Then,” he whispered, “I ask again: Can I have this dance?”

Slowly, pulling her eyes open, Jeannie rose.

On the hour-long drive back to Bellriver, Mercer scolded himself for being so cold to his trainee. He was supposed to help her, mentor her, look after her. Keep her safe.

But he was failing her.

Mercer tried to think of other things as he drove, of the case, of the owl statue and the body of Kerry Greaves. But all he could hear was his own voice ringing in his ears.

Can you follow that simple instruction? he’d said.

Like she was a child—like it was precedented, as though, up until that point, she’d been anything but helpful.

He knew he couldn’t let it get to him. But he’d lied in that hospital room.

Mercer was worried.

Every time he shut his eyes, he saw that car hit her again. And again. And again. And the more times he saw it, the more he knew it was no accident. That car didn’t come out of nowhere. They weren’t going so fast that they couldn’t have stopped in time. No, if anything, the car had sped up. Purposefully. Vindictively.

Someone was out to hurt Officer Anderson Darcy. Or, better yet, someone was out to stop her. From what? Perhaps they thought she’d uncovered something. Something about the case.

And maybe she had.

He kept that thought at the back of his mind on his drive back.

When he arrived at the station, drained, his bones heavy beneath his skin, he didn’t even bother hanging up his coat on the rack. Instead, he threw it on his desk, placing his hat on top of it.

Chief Hastings and Arlo Dugan were crowded around a computer, looking through what looked to him like the footage from the Depot’s security camera.

The chief, somewhat incredulous, looked over her shoulder at Mercer.

“Tell me you got Andi to stay at the hospital.”

He nodded, slumping into his chair. “She’s there now.”

“And you didn’t stay with her?”

“I’m no use to you there.”

A sharp look. “You’re no use to me here, either.”

Mercer rolled his eyes and slid over to where they were sitting.

“She’s fine, you know.”

Hastings nodded. “I hate that I’m not with her.”

“She’s a grown woman—”

“Don’t kid yourself, Kit. If it was you, we both know you’d want me there.”

And it was true. He hadn’t thought about it until then, but she was right. He wouldn’t want to be alone. And now Darcy . . .

Mercer shook out his head. He didn’t want to think about it.

“So,” he asked, “what’ve we got?”

“Nothing yet.” The chief looked up at Arlo, who stared down at her. “Neither of us can figure out how to work this thing.”

“It’s called a computer,” he groaned.

“It’s stupid is what it is,” muttered the chief.

Mercer sighed, “Did no one call Donnie?”

“Can’t seem to find him,” Arlo said. “He doesn’t check his phone, and it’s always on silent.” The young man shook his head. “This system is from the dark ages.”

“This is what you’ve been doing all this time?”

Hastings shook her head. “While Arlo’s been working at the computer, I received word from Franny McKinnon with both the Forensic and the Toxicology Report.”

“And?”

“Well, Kerry certainly wasn’t murdered where we found her, that’s for sure.”

“Which we already knew,” Mercer said.

“Which we already knew. But,” she continued, “they found trace amounts of sand beneath Kerry’s nails. No drugs in her system—especially not enough to kill her. This wasn’t an overdose. Which was a long shot—why mutilate a body after it’s already dead? But the sand . . .”

“Sand?” Mercer shook his head. “There isn’t sand for miles of Hollow Hill.”

“Yes, but that’s not all.”

“There’s more?”

“It was washed-sand.”

“Washed?”

The chief nodded. “This particular type of sand is only found at man-made beaches.”

Mercer’s eyes widened. “So, all we have to do is check all of the lakes in the surrounding area with artificial beaches and—”

“And maybe we’ll find something,” Hastings told him. “It’s a lead.”

Tanner Driscoll brought his beer to his lips and took a long swig. When he set the bottle down, the world was foggy around the edges; the room was darker, the lights brighter. Faces hazy—save for one. The very same one his eye always gravitated towards in a room packed full of people.

He reached for his beer again, holding it tight, but stopped himself. Because she began to spin.

Jeannie Alexandria Fellows.

He’d known her since the first day of kindergarten. The dark haired, blue-eyed beauty of Bellriver, as he often thought of her. Or, better yet, as the one who got away.

He watched her now, and something deep down inside of him roiled awake, followed by an equally deep feeling of disgust and self-loathing—always. And still, he couldn’t take his eyes from where she turned and twisted with the music, spinning under the lights. Her eyes glinted like beacons, wide and bold, hungry for life. And yet they never once landed on his. No matter how long he stared, no matter how long he sat there; it didn’t matter. She only had eyes for one. For Mark.

Tanner fought back a grimace.

His own friend, of all people.

What’d started as a crush, turned into a first date. Harmless. Until it wasn’t.

Blood rushed inside his ears. The sound of the music overhead sunk away, coming in like white noise as he brought his bottle to his lips once more, drinking long, hard, deep. To forget—forget the fact that he had his chance, and he missed it. He’d waited too long, and when Mark swooped in, Tanner had managed to convince himself he’d moved on. He married, even. Had kids of his own.

Only, there was no forgetting Jeannie Fellows. No forgetting that single freckle right above her top lip, on the left side, framed by the light hollows of her unmistakable smile lines, so deep for her age. There was no forgetting the way her bottom lip came down lower on the right side when she smiled the brightest, the way she bit it when she was at her happiest, her most excited.

There was no forgetting the fact that every time Jeannie Fellows smiled, so did everyone else.

She was . . . breathtaking. She was—

“Who’s stunning, baby?” came Hattie’s voice from the stool beside him, and Tanner jolted around to look at her.

He hadn’t noticed she’d moved.

“Huh?”

“Stunning,” she repeated, cracking open a pistachio there on the bar. Bell gave out bowls of free nuts or popcorn depending on the night.

She squinted at him. “Who do you think is stunning?”

Tanner wasn’t sure which was more surprising, the fact that he’d said the word out loud, or the fact that she couldn’t see it. That the entire room wasn’t lining up to get a good look at Jeannie Fellows and that one of a kind smile.

Just then, Hattie followed his gaze.

“I was making a joke,” he lied, offering a spurious laugh as he took a long drink, finished his bottle and set it back down on the bar. “Sarcasm.” He nudged his chin in the direction of Jeannie and Mark, gyrating beneath the shifting lights. “Stunning, ain’t it. What a sight.” He rolled his eyes, and yet they instantly bounced back to Jeannie. To Mark.

He blamed the bitter taste in his mouth on the beer.

Hattie offered up a laugh of her own, but there was no life to it. No truth.

Cursing himself, Tanner caught the bartender’s attention.

“Another.”

“For me too,” came Hattie. When they had their bottles, she held hers up towards Tanner. “For Kerry.”

His eyes widened, and he nodded, taking up his beer. “For Kerry.”

After an hour of trying to relax, Andi couldn’t take it anymore. They’d hooked her up to a loud beeping machine, and every time she thought she might actually be comfortable, another nurse came in to check on her—but no one actually did anything to help her.

“We’ll take you down to do X-rays real soon,” they promised.

The last one brought her a thing of Jell-O, which Andi pushed to the side.

“You should eat,” said the nurse.

“Not hungry,” Andi remarked, dropping her now-melted icepack to the floor. It landed with a plop and fell onto its side.

“You were hit by a car—”

“So explain to me how Jell-O’s going to heal that?”

The nurse placed her hands on her hips and sighed, and it was then that Andi noticed the edge of a tattoo peeking out of the girl’s sleeve.

“Your arm,” Andi called out to her as the nurse headed for the door.

“What about it?”

“Your tattoo.”

“It’s nothing.”

But that wasn’t true, and Andi knew it. “It’s something,” she said.

“I should keep it covered.”

“Wait.”

The nurse, reluctant, paused in the doorway.

“Shut the door.”

She did.

“Let me see it.”

“Why?”

Andi, sitting up straighter, glared at the young girl. “Let me see it.”

So, the nurse, after much hesitation, waddled over and pulled up her sleeve. On her wrist was a tattoo of an owl, wings tucked back and its eyes wide.

She looked up into the woman’s eyes—Trish. Her name was Trish.

“Why did you get this?”

“A tattoo?” Trish scoffed. “Why does there always have to be a reason to get a tattoo?”

“This owl. Why this specific owl?”

A shrug. “I liked it, I guess.”

“I need a better reason than that.”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because it does,” Andi told her. “Why this owl? Why an owl at all?”

“Wisdom,” she finally said. “I got it as a symbol of wisdom. To remind me that I’m smart enough to become a nurse. To help people.” She heaved out a long breath and stared long and hard at Andi. “But every tattoo means something different to the person who gets it. And every owl means something else.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you tell me where you got this?”

The girl clearly began to ask why, but by now thought better of it. Best to give the officer her answers and get out why she could. Maybe send a different nurse in her place.

“Red, White, and Black Tattoo. Over on Brooke Street.”

“Can you get me a list of all the tattoo parlors in the area?”

“Why? What are you after?”

“Answers,” she said. “I want answers. Only, it’s too blurry to make anything out,” the chief said, and sat back. Arlo, still standing at the computer, hung his head and slumped into the nearest seat, looking suddenly drawn. Mercer, though, remained before the screen.

“Still, license plate or not,” Mercer said, “I’ll put an APB out on a black 2007 Toyota Camry.” He clapped Arlo on the shoulder. “You got us more information than we could have hoped for, my friend.”

The chief looked at him. “Any idea what kind of car Jillian Sweetwater drives?”

Mercer shook his head. “No idea.” He stopped, a small smile forming. “But I think I might know someone who might.”

When the nurse came back with a notecard full of the names of all the tattoo parlors in the immediate area, Andi disconnected any of the wires jutting out of her and hobbled for the door. She didn’t have a car, so she’d have to take the bus. Luckily, all the shops the nurse wrote down were relatively within the same area.

She started with Red, White and Black Tattoo.

If anyone could tell her some significant reason why owls were so important, maybe she could connect it to the owl statue. Maybe they could understand why someone had killed Kerry Greaves.

Andi knew it was a long shot. But Kerry might not have been the only target. If that’s the case, then the killer could be after someone else. And they could be getting ready to strike.

Long shot or not, it was one Anderson Darcy was willing to take.

Piper Sheridan was in her pajamas when she opened the door.

“Officer Mercer,” she said, standing in the entryway. “What a surprise.”

“Got a minute?”

Seeing the severity of his features, she suddenly realized that this was a work call and nothing more.

Piper suddenly felt foolish. Until he opened his mouth and said:

“Um, is your husband home?”

He peered past her into the house, and Piper moved to block his view.

She crossed her arms. “My husband? You serious?”

“Huh?” He squinted. “Should I be?”

“Oh, come on. You’re playing with me.”

“Playing with you?”

“Yeah, using the classic ’is your husband home’ card.”

Mercer, dumbfounded, shook his head. “I didn’t even know that was a card—”

“Don’t play dumb,” she teased. “You know, the one where I say, ’Oh, strong man. I don’t have a husband. I’m all alone here in this big house.” She flirtatiously flipped her hair back and dramatically dashed a hand across her brow. “Won’t you come in and save me from my lonesomeness?”

“I’d like to.” His eyes widened and his face reddened. “Come in, that is. I’d like to come in.”

“I’m not really asking,” she said, shaking her head.

“And I really wasn’t playing a card.”

Rolling her eyes, Piper spun into the house and motioned for him to follow, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips. She brought him to the living room and he sat him down on the couch. She plopped into the rocker by the fireplace.

A movie was frozen on the TV screen above the mantle.

“This is a nice house.”

“Thank you. It’s my husband’s.”

Mercer held up his hands in surrender. “I really wasn’t trying to play a card.”

“And I don’t really have a husband.” She laughed and he hung his head. “What can I do for you, Officer Mercer?”

“Christian,” he told her, taking off his hat. He held it in his hands, spinning it between his fingers. “Call me Christian. No one ever does.”

Piper nodded. “Then I’ll be the one who does. Christian.” She inclined her head. “Christian Mercer. Anyone ever call you Kit?”

He gripped his hat tighter. “No one,” he lied. “Then again, I am an adult.”

“Doesn’t stop a Margot from being a Peggy.”

“But that isn’t really the same, though, is it?”

Piper leaned forward. “You tell me.”

Instinctually, Mercer leaned back, moving away. “I’m hear about a case.”

Her right brow shot up. “The one about Kerry Greaves?”

“The very same.”

A small nod. “So, what about this case brings you here? To my house.”

“Jillian Sweetwater.”

“What does she want with me?” asked Piper.

“Nothing. I just wanted to know if you could identify her car.”

Slowly, thinking first, she shook her head. “We weren’t close. And Hilltown is a big school. For the most part,” she added. “I’m not sure we ever spoke more than two words to each other the entire time I worked there.”

“I take it she wasn’t the friendliest person.”

“Wasn’t that,” said Piper. “She was constantly distant. Like she was haunted by something. Something she couldn’t get over.”

This had Mercer’s attention.

Emotion is the engenderment of murder, Chief Hastings once said. It starts with a feeling. A good feeling gone bad.

“I know her husband left her. She tells people she kicked him out, but I’m almost positive Jillian Sweetwater’s husband was justified in his leaving.”

“What makes you say that?”

Piper shook her head. “Just a feeling I’ve got.”

Mercer nodded. “Well, I don’t want to waste any more of your time.” He rose and squished his hat back on his head, straitening it as he moved for the door. “If you remember anything about the car Ms. Sweetwater drives, give the station a call.”

“Going so soon?”

“I’ve got to get back. My trainee—”

“Anderson Darcy?”

“Yeah, that’d be the one,” he said, squinting. “You keeping tabs on me?”

Piper grinned. “That a bad thing?”

Slowly, smiling, Mercer shook his head.

“What about your trainee?”

“Andi. She was hit by a car earlier today.”

There was a sudden flash of horror that crept into Piper’s face like a sickness. Her eyes flew wide and she covered her mouth with a hand. “That’s horrible. Is she alright?”

“She’ll make it,” he said.

“And you think it was Jillian Sweetwater driving?”

He shrugged. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No worries.” His hat was in his hands again, and he was spinning it, his eyes fixated on the shelves behind her. “I really should be going, though. The chief’s alone at the station—”

Mercer stopped what he was doing.

“Christian?” She waved a hand in front of his face before following his line of vision. “You okay?”

“This photograph,” he said, taking up one of the many frames she had standing on her shelves.

“Faculty photo.” Piper pointed to herself. “About a year ago. Why?”

The picture showed a group of teachers and faculty members all grouped together in the school parking lot, making funny faces. But it wasn’t the people in the photo that had Mercer’s attention, it was what was in the background.

“That car.” He placed a finger over the vehicle in the background.

Piper stared, then brought the frame closer to her face.

“Oh, my god,” she said. “Is that the car you’re looking for?”

“By the looks of it, the very same.”

“Then Jillian Sweetwater’s your girl?”

“I don’t know,” he told her. “But I’m beginning to think so.”

The first three tattoo parlors were a bust. None of the artists felt like talking much, and the information they gave Andi was shallow, on the surface. She needed more. A reason. Something that explained why the owl was so significant.

“Ink and Bone,” she said, staring at the open sign blazing in the window, “you’re my last hope.”

Of course, she knew she was being dramatic. There were other parlors she could check out, just none in the immediate area. None for miles, really.

When she entered, a bald man with an inked-over scalp lifted his head. He sat off to the side, behind a desk, sketching. A few people were getting tattoos throughout the room, some sitting, some lying on their backs or on their chests.

Artwork covered the walls, even the ceiling.

Naked women. Daggers. Naked women with daggers.

Tits galore.

“Can I help you, officer?” asked the bald man.

She strutted in, hoping he didn’t see the agony in each and every step she took.

“I want to get a tattoo.”

“Really? A cop like yourself?”

“Just because I carry a gun doesn’t make me different.”

The man laughed and waved a hand. “Half the people that come in here have a gun on them. It’s the badge I’m most surprised by.” He motioned for her to come closer, but he deliberately didn’t rise upon her approach. “What can I do you for?”

“I want an owl.”

“Got a picture with you, officer . . .”

“Darcy,” she said, and shook her head. “Got anything I can see?”

The bald man quietly sighed and rolled his chair over to one wall, waving for her to follow. An array of artwork hung above her head, and in this section were drawings and sketches of different birds done by different hands in different styles. There were three different owls.

“That one,” she said, pointing to one with its wings drawn in tight.

He nodded. “Can I ask why you want it?”

“I like it,” she said, like that was reason enough.

“To each his own.”

“Her own,” corrected Andi.

The bald man nodded, eyes arched toward the ceiling. “Her own.” Again, he sighed. “Come over to the table. I’ll get you ready. And just know that we only take cash.”

“Not a problem,” said Andi. He sat her down and she watched as he readied the needle. “Can I ask . . .?”

“Shoot.”

“Do a lot of people go for the owls?”

“A whole lot of white people.” He paused. “Why, afraid it won’t be original enough?”

Andi stared. “No, I don’t care about that.”

“Good.”

“It’s just . . .”

“Yes?” asked the bald man.

“I feel like I should have a good reason as to why I’m getting it. You know?”

He shrugged his shoulder. “Not every tattoo needs a reason.”

“Not even the first?”

“Not even the first.” The man grabbed a pink razor from a cabinet and set it down. “Gotta shave you. Still set on an owl?”

“Not entirely,” admitted Andi, eyeing the razor.

The main huffed out a breath. “A lot of people like to get a tattoo of an owl because it symbolizes wisdom. A sense of knowledge, transition, even. Some look for the freedom in it, in the wisdom and in the owl’s flight.” He looked up at her then. “Some people take the Native route. Try to find symbolism there.”

Andi stared. “The Native route?”

“Yeah, Native. As in Native American. They’ve got their own set of beliefs, you know. To some, an owl is this great guardian of sacred knowledge.”

“And to others?”

“Death,” he said, and Andi froze. The hairs at the nape of her neck stood on end.

“Death?”

An absent nod. “In Cheyanne culture, the owl is seen as the messenger of death.” He shook his head. “Not a lot of white girls tend to get it for that reason, though,” he admitted.

But when he looked up, he realized Andi was already on her feet.

“Everything alright?”

She ignored him and looked out the window.

“That yours?” She motioned to the motorcycle parked out front.

Confused, he nodded. “What of it?”

“No time to explain. I need a ride.”

Chief Hastings was sitting at the desk in her office when Andi first walked in. The initial disgust in Kit’s voice had her going for the door, and she didn’t know what surprised her more, the fact that their new trainee was there rather than the hospital, or that she wasn’t alone.

A great, burly bald man stood in the entryway, his head coated in deep lines of ink. And, by the looks of it, snow.

Indeed, a glance out the window told her it was snowing. Not the first of the season, and not the last.

Andi, ignoring Kit, went to her desk and drew out some money.

“Thanks for the ride,” she told the man, and handed him the cash.

He accepted it without a word and, clutching it tight, turned from the room, smiling all the way down the steps. He counted it as he went.

“Who was that?” asked the chief, quirking a brow.

“His name’s Clyde.”

“Friend of yours?”

Andi looked after the man, somewhat discombobulated after about an hour spent on the back of a bike. She shook out her head, messy hair bouncing, as if to free the thoughts from the jumbled mess that was her mind.

“Boyfriend?” continued Hastings.

Mercer scowled. “A husband we don’t know about . . .?”

Andi ignored them.

“Look, I’ve got something.”

“You should be in bed, Andi,” Mercer said. “Resting—”

“You already made that clear!” she snapped at him, turning back to the chief, who simply stared, interested.

Mercer strained to keep still beneath Chief Hasting’s stare, fighting to keep from shrinking into himself. He flushed. Mercer knew they’d speak about this later—the attitude given to him by his trainee. And why—maybe—it was warranted.

Andi ran frantic hands through her hair. “It’s Jillian Sweetwater.”

Chief Hastings inched forward. “What about her?”

“She’s Cheyanne.”

A nod. “That much we’ve gathered. What else you got?”

“No, no. You don’t understand. The owl. It’s Cheyanne.”

“How do you know?” asked Mercer.

Andi didn’t even look at him. “I’ve been canvasing tattoo parlors asking about the meaning behind the owl. It’s the Cheyanne messenger of death,” she said, almost hissing the word. “I’ve looked at the census report from the last year about three times now and Jillian Sweetwater is the only Native American of the Cheyanne tribe in town.”

Chief Hastings suddenly looked very interested.

“Jillian Sweetwater . . .”

“All signs point to her,” Andi said. “She told you her husband was sleeping around, right? Maybe that’s the guy Kerry was with before she died.”

Mercer, putting his annoyance aside, said, “You think maybe Sweetwater found out and got angry?”

“Angry enough to kill,” whispered the chief, almost to herself.

Mercer gave a small nod. “And left the statue, not as a calling card, but as part of her faith. A sign of vengeance. Not for us to find, but as a warning from a Cheyanne woman that’d been crossed by another.”

“Maybe not vengeance,” said Lizzie Hastings.

“But as a way of avenging what they used to cherish. Her and her husband.” They both looked at Andi. “A love long dead,” she added.

Mercer planted his hands on his hips. “Jillian Sweetwater did it, then. She murdered Kerry Greaves.”

Suddenly, the phone rang. They glanced from one to the other until, at last, Andi gave up and reached for the phone.

“Bellriver PD, what’s your emergency?”

Andi stopped. Froze. Shut her eyes.

“What is it?” Mercer asked.

Her eyes flew wide and slid to his, then the chief’s. “It’s Jillian Sweetwater,” she said. “Apparently her car’s been stolen.”

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